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President Bush Outlines Cuban Policy Initiatives

October 24, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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KWAME HOLMAN: Fidel Castro is 81, ailing, and temporarily has handed power to his brother, Raul, who has promised to keep Cuba on its communist course. But today, President Bush laid out his program to push forward a transition to democracy in Cuba.

In his first major address on Cuba policy in four years, Mr. Bush criticized the Castro regime, but said there were stirrings for change.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: As we speak, calls for fundamental change are growing across the island. Peaceful demonstrations are spreading. Earlier this year, leading Cuban dissidents came together for the first time to issue the Unity of Freedom, a declaration for democratic change.

KWAME HOLMAN: And he said it was time for the U.S. and other democracies to encourage that change.

GEORGE W. BUSH: Now is the time to support the democratic movements growing on the island. Now is the time to stand with the Cuban people as they stand up for their liberty. And now is the time for the world to put aside its differences and prepare for Cuba’s transition to a future of freedom and progress and promise.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president asserted that the U.S. provided Cuba with more than $270 million in privately raised aid last year and was ready to do more. Mr. Bush offered three specific ideas: expanded Internet access to Cuban students; and an invitation to Cuban youth to join a Latin American scholarship program; he also called for the creation of an international fund to help a democratic Cuba build a free-market economy.

But the president said he would not lift the decades-old U.S. economic embargo or travel restrictions to Cuba. President Bush then made a direct appeal to the Cuban people.

GEORGE W. BUSH: To those Cubans who are listening, perhaps at great risk, I would like to speak to you directly. Some of you are members of the Cuban military or the police or officials in the government. You may have once believed in the revolution; now you can see its failure.

When Cubans rise up to demand their liberty, the liberty they deserve, you’ve got to make a choice. Will you defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people, or will you embrace your people’s desire for change?

To the ordinary Cubans who are listening, you have the power to shape your own destiny. You can bring about a future where your leaders answer to you, where you can freely express your beliefs, and where your children can grow up in peace. And you can carry this refrain your heart: Su dia ya viene llegando. Your day is coming soon.

KWAME HOLMAN: Castro, for his part, published an essay Tuesday accusing President Bush of threatening “humanity with World War III.”

Putting a face on Cuba's struggles

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the president's latest Cuba initiative, we turn to Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Latin America and ambassador to the Organization of American States earlier in the Bush administration. He's now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

And Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, a group that pushes to declassify and publish secret U.S. government documents. He is also author and editor of several books on Latin America.

Welcome to you both.

Roger Noriega, you were in the audience today at the White House. What is President Bush trying to accomplish with this speech?

ROGER NORIEGA, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I think, first and foremost, the president is putting a human face on the tragic reality of Cuba today. Castro is a relic, but his regime is still a reality for seven million Cubans who live in oppression. And it was his idea to have, for example, the wives of Cuban prisoners of conscience there for all the world to see and to highlight that this is a human cost.

The second thing I think he wanted to do in a very dramatic fashion is challenge the diplomatic corps to get on the right side of history, that it's never too late to be on the side of the Cuban people.

MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about now the countries that do have relations with Cuba?

ROGER NORIEGA: Exactly, the many countries. He singled out Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary for doing good things to help and challenged, really, the others to step forward and, at this crucial hour, be more proactive in supporting the efforts of the Cuban people to reclaim their future.

MARGARET WARNER: But what was he trying to do with the Cuban people when he says, "You can shape your own future"? I mean, is he calling for an armed rebellion or a sort of Velvet Revolution, a la Eastern Europe?

ROGER NORIEGA: I think he's calling on them to decide and reminding them that this is the time to do so, to step forward, to claim their country and their future. And it is for them to decide how to do that and remind them that there is international solidarity for their cause and that the cause of freedom is really on the right side and has momentum in the world and they need to be part of that future.

Analyzing the dissident movement

MARGARET WARNER: So, Peter Kornbluh, how did this strike you as a plan, or a game plan, or a blueprint for pushing post-Castro Cuba in a more democratic direction?

PETER KORNBLUH, Cuba Documentation Project: You know, what struck me was how the president talked the big talk but really wielded a very, very small stick and how ineffectual and somewhat unrealistic his proposals were and his view of what's going on today in Cuba is.

There is no significant dissident movement to support. There is no overthrow or regime change coming over the horizon in Cuba. For the last year-and-a-half, this administration has sat on the sidelines, while an actual transition from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raul, has taken place and taken place rather dramatically, tranquilly and smoothly, with no mass exodus, no fragmentation of the regime itself.

MARGARET WARNER: What tells you, though, that there isn't the prospect that when Castro actually dies, Fidel Castro actually dies, that there would be sort of a mass outpouring, a demand for change?

PETER KORNBLUH: If that was going to have happened, it would have happened last August, a year ago August after Fidel transferred power. Fidel Castro may or may not be dying, but it's clear that his regime is still rather strong.

The economy is growing. They have new very strong relations, economically and politically, with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. China is investing in Cuba. There really is no sign of instability. And so everything that the president said today and the proposals that he made really aren't going to strike a chord inside Cuba or with the international community, for that matter.

Siding with the Cuban people

MARGARET WARNER: Do you have countervailing evidence that, in fact, there is a sort of ripe environment there for this call?

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, the evidence is all around us. It's all around the globe. And the president reminded people that there are those who bet against freedom and they turned up on the wrong side of history. There are those who said that the Soviet Union was sturdy and strong and resilient. And five or six years later, it was gone.

But I wouldn't want to bet against or be accused of betting against the aspirations of the Cuban people to win their freedom. We need to be proactive; I think that is true. And we need to be helpful.

But there is a group -- there is not this tranquil transition going on. There is an effort by Castro to sustain the regime even after Fidel's death. And that is really a violent reality for seven million Cuban people. And I don't think we should be sanguine about that.

I think we should be on the side of the Cuban people. We should be encouraging the international community to be more active, to communicate with the island, to challenge the regime, to bring about real change. They probably won't do so, but hopefully, when the Cuban people stand up, people like my friend here and people around the world and in other capitals will say, "No, we're going to be on the right side of history. We're going to be on the side of the Cuban people as they claim their legitimate freedoms."

MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, in the meanwhile, he was not suggesting any change in American policy. That is, the trade embargo will continue. And, Peter Kornbluh, he said to start trading with Cuba would just enrich the regime. Is he right?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, the embargo is what stands in the way of the United States having any leverage or influence in Cuba for the future. If we had normal relations with Cuba, we would have trade, we would have cultural exchanges. We would have the things that we had with the Soviet Union and with the Eastern Bloc countries when those changes took place there.

And other countries have trade with Cuba, and other countries are in there in a dialogue and with the Cuban people. I think the rest of the world is out in front of the United States. And the United States has essentially been relegated to the sidelines of this issue because of its policy.

ROGER NORIEGA: Well, I think the president made very clear that we're not going to make unilateral concessions to revive a regime that's breathing its last, dying breaths. And I think it just doesn't make any sense, if it ever did, to make unilateral concessions to the one guy who is the obstacle to political and economic freedom for the people.

U.S. influence in Cuba

MARGARET WARNER: But what about Peter Kornbluh's point that it diminishes the U.S. ability to have leverage?

ROGER NORIEGA: Oh, I think the U.S. is the most influential country in the world from the standpoint of Cuba. The president made that point to the military leaders, the would-be repressors. He made the point to the Cuban people that this is the time for a national reconciliation and to their oppressors: If you get in the way, it would be a tragedy, for one thing, if one more drop of blood, of Cuban blood, is shed in the service of this failed Fidel Castro, this project of Fidel Castro's, and they will be held accountable.

Those are the sorts of messages and the message that we will use our leverage, economic and political relations, as an incentive to reform and a reward to people who bring about real change in Cuba.

MARGARET WARNER: What did you make of that message to the military and government and police?

PETER KORNBLUH: Well, I thought it was an effort by the president to divide the Cuban military, to try to get them to peel off from the regime. I thought his call to the Cuban people to kind of take these matters into their own hands was almost exhorting them to rise up and then telling the military not to shoot them if they did.

President Bush said very clearly: We're on the side of democracy, not on the side of stability. And that puts the United States perhaps on the side of instability and fomenting instability in Cuba, which will lead to violence and bloodshed that nobody wants to see that and that U.S. policy has the opportunity to prevent, if bridges are built with Cuba in the foreseeable future.

MARGARET WARNER: But you said earlier you don't really think that the Cuban people are going to rise up.

PETER KORNBLUH: I do not see that happening, unless the United States puts its mind to instigating instability in Cuba.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there. Roger Noriega, Peter Kornbluh, thank you both.

PETER KORNBLUH: Thank you.